Monday, February 28, 2011


Retro Game Challenge

It's hard to think that there can be anything wrong with a world where I can reach into my pocket, pull out a plastic rectangle, flip it open, and play Robot Ninja Haggleman whenever I want. I can't remember the last time I anticipated a video game so much for so long and been so very, very satisfied with the results.

It's a small miracle that this game even got a western release, being based on a Japanese TV show and featuring such an oddball premise. And yet, here we are.

Life is pretty damned good.

Retro Game Challenge is a great game. And it works on three different levels.

It Works as a Home Version of Game Center CX

Game Center CX is, as far as I know, a sort of Japanese reality TV show about a guy named Shinya Arino and his efforts to complete difficult challenges in a host of old Famicom games. Someone out there thought, hey, let's make a video game about that.

So the premise is that you've been sent back in time to 1984, and you've been transformed into a ten-year-old kid. To return to your proper place in the space-time continuum, you have to pair up with ten-year-old Arino and complete challenges set by a digitalized, marginally demonic version of modern-day Arino. Maybe you'll have to reach a certain level without dying or complete a level in a certain time limit or find a certain bonus item -- whatever. Each game has four challenges, and when you've completed them all, you unlock the next game.

So this is already a lot more interesting than most retro game packs. It may sound like a pain in the ass to have to complete challenges in games you don't like to reach games that interest you more, but this is mitigated by two facts:

1) Every game is awesome.

2) The challenges are easy enough that you'll probably get them on your first try, and most of them can be done in just a couple minutes.

Let's face it -- there wasn't a hell of a lot going on in older video games. While it's nice enough to play a game like Pac-Man "just because", it's really a lot more satisfying when you have concrete goals to shoot for. And the fanfare that plays when you accomplish a goal will make you feel like the king of the world.

It Works as a Microcosm of 80's Game Culture

The most celebrated feature of Retro Game Challenge is, of course, its presentation. A lot of care has been taken to make sure that you're not just playing the games it presents, but that you've actually been transported to this place where you are playing video games.

The bottom screen shows Arino's living room, where Arino sits side by side with your character. The top screen shows a view of Arino's TV. The touch screen has power and reset controls for the Game Computer. These are exactly the sort of little touches I like to see in something like this.

And when you play a game, Arino talks over it, reacting to what you're doing. He's got a wealth of voice clips at his disposal, and they're used to surprisingly good effect; they don't sound repetitive at all, and the system is generally intelligent about when they should be used. Arino cheers, groans, and yawns right along with you. And just like that, you feel like you're a kid again, over at a friend's house, trying out a new video game he got while he sits next to you and watches. That's something that most retro video game collections just won't give you -- a ten-year-old that'll sit next to you and freak out over how awesome you are at a game.

A lot of the atmosphere of the game comes from your conversations with Arino. He'll have something to say before and after every challenge, and you can strike up a conversation with him whenever you want. He'll share his opinions about the most recent game he got, or he'll share some video game rumors he heard on the playground, or he'll just share his thoughts and opinions about how the video game industry is booming right before your eyes. And every once in a while, his mom will call from the other room to tell you to stop playing and do some chores, and you'll ignore her.

But everyone's favorite part is the magazines. They're brief -- typically about 12 screens of text each. Mostly you'll be reading them for cheats that you can use to get through your challenges more easily, but they contain a couple fun snippets of peripheral material too -- letters from the editor, reader mail, sales charts.

As in real life, the magazines also serve the function of telling you about what's coming up. And in my opinion, this just may be the most important part. Like it or not, but preview hype can make a big difference when it comes to how much you enjoy a video game. Games exist in a certain place in time, and they're greatly influenced by the expectations of gaming culture at that time. And that's another thing that most retro video game collections won't give you -- the frame of mind of someone living inside a culture that's seeing things like Robot Ninja Haggleman and Guadia Quest for the first time.

And my favorite thing about this 80's simulation? You spend five years playing side by side with Arino. In that time, his library only amounts to 8 games. Reminds me of when I was a kid, and games only came on birthdays and Christmas, so every single one of them was played to death.

It Works as a Collection of Excellent Games

This is the most important thing. If the games were bad, nothing else would've mattered. Luckily, the games are very good. Yes, even Rally King.

The games are small compared to their real-world counterparts, but they all feel surprisingly complete. They could have made a Game Center CX game by tossing together a handful of fake levels, and they could've ended up with a sort of Wario Ware kinda game, but they went the extra mile. Every single game in the set looks and feels like a standalone release, complete with title and ending screens, cheats, secrets -- so much effort has been put into every individual game that you may forget that you're playing "mini-games".

The thing is, these aren't really retro games. They look retro, and they have a few scoring and gameplay elements that recall the games of yore, but they play in a much more modern way. Controls are tight, color palettes are vibrant throughout, there's no deliberate flickering or slowdown, and, perhaps most importantly of all, the games are easy enough that you can finish them without too much hassle.

Let's have a spoilery look!

Cosmic Gate

This is your "static screen" spaceship shooter. It's basically Galaga, except that I'm good at it. It helps that you get a powerup that can destroy an entire column of enemies in one shot. The game alternates between your typical spaceship shooting gallery and "Asteroid Zones". Early in the game, Asteroid Zones are basically bonus levels where you can rack up lots of extra points, but as they start moving faster, it becomes a challenge just to stay alive.

Robot Ninja Haggleman

Oh hell yeah. This game is sort of an arcade platformer (as opposed to an adventure platformer, like Super Mario Brothers). You've got these smallish levels that are only about three screens wide, and they scroll left and right and wrap around when you go too far, and the object is to kill a boss character. There are two ways to make the boss appear: either you can kill all of the enemies in a stage, or you can find the door it's hiding behind. You can stun most enemies with ninja stars and you can jump on their heads to kill them. There are also colored doors littered through the levels, and when you hide behind one, all of the like-colored doors on the screen also flip, harming any enemies that are close by. There are eight levels, and then a "second quest" where you replay the levels with tougher enemies.

This is my favorite game in the set, the one I keep coming back to. It's short enough that it fits into any block of time you might have, and it's just endlessly fun.

Rally King

A lot of people are hard on Rally King, which is sort of an overhead racing game, but I quite like it. I think it's disliked because there's sort of a learning curve; the steering takes some getting used to, and you'll crash a lot until you get a feel for the different courses and you learn how to use your speed.

Star Prince

This is your "bullet hell" vertical scrolling shooter. There's things to shoot at, things shooting at you, lots of powerups, the whole deal. The neat thing about this game is that you can hold down a button to activate a shield which absorbs most kinds of enemy bullets, then shoots out a super-charged pulse that devastates most enemies.

The most interesting thing about this game is the way it introduces rapid-fire. For the first two challenges, you just use your normal controller, tapping a button to shoot. But once you pass those challenges, the game offers you a rapid-fire button which you can hold down to shoot repeatedly. This is a really interesting history lesson. See, I never played shooting games back in the 80s, so I never understood the appeal of rapid-fire controllers. But when you go from hammering A as fast as you can to unleashing a solid stream of destruction just by holding down a button, it really makes you feel like a proper badass.

Rally King SP

This is sort of a Japanese inside joke. I guess it was a practice in Japan to release special promotional versions of video games with different graphics to promote various non-game products and such. One real life example is All Night Nippon Super Mario Brothers.

So yeah. Young Arino wins a contest in Game Fan magazine and gets a copy of the rare and highly collectible Rally King SP, which is a slightly rearranged version of Rally King that includes ads for Game Fan magazine and Inokichi instant noodles. Now all of the gamers who've always wanted to get their hands on a special edition game can discover... it's really not that interesting.

Robot Ninja Haggleman 2

This game is to the first Haggleman what the Japanese Super Mario Brothers 2 is to the first Super Mario Brothers. It's basically the same game engine, but the graphics have been overhauled and the stages are a lot more difficult. Technically, you could say it's the superior game, but when I just want to kick back and play, I just prefer the easier original.

Guadia Quest

Yes indeed, it's an RPG, in the style of Dragon Quest. You roam dungeons, kill monsters, collect treasure, the whole deal. I really, really appreciate the work that's gone into this game. If you just wanted to demonstrate what 8-bit RPGs were like, you could make a single dungeon with a single boss and a simple "rescue the princess" plot, and that'd be enough to support the gameplay. And while this is a pretty short adventure, there are multiple bosses to fight and a plot with a pretty decent twist.

There's actually some consternation among fans of Retro Game Challenge over the length of Guadia Quest, and it's somewhat justifiable. Most of the games, you can clear all four challenges in half an hour or less. When you get to Guadia Quest, the pace of the game just hits a wall, and it becomes a slow, meticulous grind. The challenges only cover as far as the first boss, but that's still enough dungeon crawling to really slow the game down. Me, I don't mind. If anything, I see Guadia Quest as a great way to get my RPG fix without sinking the kind of time that you'd need to complete, say, Final Fantasy on the NES.

Robot Ninja Haggleman 3

Completing the Super Mario Brothers analogy, Robot Ninja Haggleman 3 is a quantum leap for the series. The game has become a proper adventure platforming game, with huge levels and completely reworked gameplay. It really does a great job of recalling the giant sidescrolling adventures that the NES had.

It Just Works

Retro Game Challenge is just completely excellent. It's quite a pity that it didn't catch on better than it did, but hey, it's still kind of a miracle that it came out in the west at all. I've gone through this game over and over again just to play through the story and all of the challenges and read the magazines and play Haggleman. Best favorite forever.


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